Which Roku Should I Buy? Express vs. Stick vs. Premier vs. Ultra

So you’ve decided you want a Roku, but there are so many choices. There are currently six different models (not including full TVs with Roku built-in), and it’s not at all clear what the difference between them is. Which one do you want?

Well, to start, there are no bad choices: every Roku device can stream Netflix, Hulu, and thousands of other channels in full HD, not to mention some great free video channels. It’s when you get to other options, like 4K streaming and wired connectivity, that the models differ.

Here’s a very quick summary of the various devices currently offered by Roku:

  • Roku Express, $30. This is the cheapest option, and probably good enough for most users.
  • Roku Express+, $40. This is identical to the Express, but comes with an A/V cable for use with older TVs that don’t have an HDMI port.
  • Roku Streaming Stick, $50. This is Roku in an HDMI stick form factor with a quad core processor.
  • Roku Premier, $80. This is the cheapest Roku you can get that supports 4K output.
  • Roku Premier+, $100. The Premier+ Roku’s remote contains a headphone jack for private listening. It’s the cheapest Roku with an ethernet port.
  • Roku Ultra, $130. This is the only current Roku with a USB port for external hard drives. It also offers voice search via the remote, and optical digital audio output.

That’s just a quick overview. Let’s dive into the complete Roku lineup, starting with the Roku Express and working our way up the price scale. More expensive options (almost) always include every feature offered by the cheaper models, so I’ll only be listing the new features as I work my way up the chain. Our advice: buy the cheapest model with all the features you care about.

The $30 Roku Express: the Cheapest Option

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This is it: the most affordable streaming device on the market. If you just want to watch the services you’re already paying for, and aren’t concerned with specs, this is the model for you. Here’s a quick roundup of the features offered:

  • Support for full HD video: 1920 by 1080 pixels (1080p)
  • Connects via HDMI
  • Dolby Audio via HDMI
  • 802.11 b/g/n wireless connectivity (no MIMO)
  • Voice search and private listening using the Roku mobile app (but not using the remote.)
  • Cast videos from YouTube on your phone.

It’s barebones, but it works. If this is all you want, there’s absolutely no reason to pay anything more than $30, which (not coincidentally) is $5 cheaper than a Chromecast.

For $10, more you can get the Express+, which works with older televisions thanks to an included A/V cable. The Express+ is otherwise identical to the Express.

The $50 Roku Streaming Stick: More Power for a Little More Money

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It’s easy to confuse the Roku Streaming Stick with the Roku Express, but there are a few key differences. For one thing, there’s the form factor: the Express plugs directly into your HDMI port, whereas the Express is connected using a cable. And there are a few more features here that the Express doesn’t offer:

  • A quad-core processor.
  • 802.11 b/g/n dual-band MIMO wireless connectivity. This isn’t quite the latest in wireless tech, but is faster than what the Express offers. This only matters if you have an 802.11 b/g/n compatable router.
  • Miracast support, so you can mirror your Windows or Android device’s screen.
  • Point anywhere remote.
  • Cast videos from Netflix on your phone.

It’s worth noting that this $50 streaming stick uses the same processor as all the Roku models above it in the hierarchy, meaning it should run faster than the Express and roughly about as fast as the more expensive models. If you try out the Express and find it runs a little slow, spending the extra $20 might make sense, especially if you’d also like to occasionally mirror your phone or laptop to the TV for showing off photos.

The $80 Roku Premier: The Cheapest 4K-Ready Roku

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If you’ve got a 4K TV, and want to watch 4K content, this is the low end Roku so far as you’re concerned.

  • Beautiful 4K video, via HDCP 2.2 HDMI.
  • 802.11ac dual-band MIMO wireless connectivity. This is latest in wireless tech, but only really matters if you have a 802.11ac router, but such a router is basically necessary if you want to stream HD video.
  • Night listening. This makes soft sounds (like dialogue) louder, and loud sounds (like explosions) softer, so you can watch TV at night without disrupting your sleeping family.

Just to make things confusing, the Roku Premier doesn’t have one feature that the Streaming Stick does: the point-anywhere Wi-Fi remote. I’ve no idea why that’s the case.

The $100 Roku Premier+: HDR and Ethernet Compatible

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For $20 more than the Premier, the Roku Premier+ is probably going to make watching 4K a lot better. This model offers:

  • HDR support, which offers a much wider range of colors: brighter whites and darker blacks. If your TV supports HDR, you probably want this.
  • Ethernet port, so you can stream videos without clogging up your Wi-Fi network. This is probably a good idea for watching 4K content, especially if you’re streaming from other PCs on the network.
  • A microSD slot, for storing extra channels or even videos.
  • A point anywhere remote, with a headphone jack for private listening.

If you paid for a 4K TV with HDR compatibility, there’s really no reason not to spend the $20 for a Roku with the feature, and ethernet connectivity is going to make streaming 4K content a lot easier.

The $130 Roku Ultra: All The Bells and Whistles

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At $130, the most expensive Roku costs $20 less than the cheapest Apple TV, but is it worth paying for? Two main features might make it worthwhile, plus a couple other niceties:

The additional remote functions are easy to ignore, but voice search in particular is actually pretty useful. It’s a quick way to find out which streaming services offer which shows, without having to use an on-screen keyboard.

But Seriously, Which Roku Should I Buy?

Still not sure which one you should buy? We’ll repeat our advice from the top of the article: buy the cheapest device with every feature you care about. If you don’t care about 4K, there’s probably no reason to buy anything more expensive than the Streaming Stick. If you want 4K video with HDR support, the Premier+ is the best buy here. Ultimately, which model is right for you depends on which features you want.

It’s worth noting that there are also various TVs on the market right now with Roku software baked into them. Our policy: smart TVs are stupid. Get a plain old dumb TV and buy a Roku, which you can replace easily later without having to buy a new TV.

Justin Pot is a staff writer for How-To Geek, and a technology enthusiast who lives in Hillsboro, Oregon. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook, if you want. You don't have to.